Was Humanity Inevitable?

Many scientists think that evolution is a directionless process, one in which humans are merely an accidental byproduct. In a recent episode of the award-winning radio program “To the Best of Our Knowledge” (produced by Wisconsin Public Radio, and reposted above, with permission), however, esteemed paleontologist Simon Conway Morris of Cambridge University explains a different view of evolution. Conway Morris has catalogued plentiful examples of evolutionary convergence, in which different organisms arrive at the same function through different evolutionary pathways, including the trait of intelligence. He examines the ability of the octopus to gaze, learn and play, and compares it to the intelligent behaviors of dolphins and the tool making ability of certain crows. Given enough time and resources, he says, every ecological niche will be filled up by some kind of life form. One of these niches is that for highly intelligent life, a niche occupied by us, Homo sapiens. If the tape was rewound and evolution started over from scratch, Conway Morris says, the evolutionary details would be different, but the end result would be similar: a species characterized by intelligence and complex civilization.

While several esteemed scientists, including atheist Richard Dawkins, and Brown University cell biologist, Kenneth Miller, agree with Simon Conway Morris, most (according to Dawkins) do not accept that evolution can have this sort of directionality. Sean Carroll, leading evolutionary biologist and Vice-President of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, says that animals merely “exploit what’s available,” with no necessary end. Little, he believes, is inevitable. “With a few other rolls of the dice,” he says, evolution would have resulted in a significantly different assortment of organisms. Noted philosopher of science, Daniel Dennett, agrees with Carroll. Just as the origin and wide-spread diversity of creatures like marsupials (mammals with a pouch) was not inevitable, he says, so the evolution of intelligent human-like beings was not inevitable either. Dennett goes on to say:

The idea that this whole great universe was in some sense designed or intended for us strikes me as just bizarrely self-involved (chuckles)—one of the most stunningly narcissistic visions that I’ve ever encountered. It seems unlikely, don’t you think?

In complete contrast Conway Morris says:

The universe from a theistic viewpoint, from a Christian viewpoint, is utterly contingent. It needn’t exist at all, more particularly it could be anything which God so chose. Science is an open-ended adventure; we don’t know where it’s going to end. People who think religion is simply a set of answers to keep you comfortable are, I’m afraid, sadly mistaken—it is an open-ended adventure. We don’t know, really, what the nature of the universe is. We don’t know why we have our moral, ethical, intellectual and poetic capacities. I know they come from an evolutionary basis, I have no quarrel with that. But so far as I’m concerned, we are going on to completely new territory and my view would be that in fact the religious instincts and the religious teachings actually tell us something real about the world. They’re not simply fairy stories.

So is the near-certainty of human life front-loaded from the beginning? Was it predetermined from the Big Bang that human beings would eventually arise? Was it predetermined that God’s natural activity—that activity which upholds the universe and maintains all that is within it—would be sufficient for the eventual development of humans? Alternatively, was supernatural activity required for the creation of the human body? Does the Bible dictate one way or the other? Is it somehow less God’s creation if it took place through God’s natural activity? Is it somehow more God’s creation if supernatural activity was required? These are questions for theologians. Science is taking us up to edge as Conway Morris brilliantly shows. There, we meet the theologians, and there, we begin the journey’s next phase.